In the Oresteia, the chorus exclaims to the body of Agamemnon, "O King, my king, how shall I weep for you?" Much later, Electra hesitates before his grave and asks, "What shall I say, as I pour out these outpourings of sorrow? How say the good word, how make my prayer to my father?" For she has truly been asked an unspeakable task-- to appease his spirit on behalf of the wife who murdered him -- "shall I say this sentence, regular in human use: 'Grant good return to those who send to you these flowers of honor: gifts to match the ... evil they have done.' "
In the 21st century, surrounded by invention, marketing, ritual, and cultural interpretation, we are unused to situations which have no response. We despise hesitancy because it reveals weakness and uncertainty. But Electra is uncertain about more than how to proceed; she sees little hope from under the harsh grief of living in a house of blood.
Unable to address her murdered father, Electra turns her voice to the gods. But if one struggles to speak about a death of a loved parent, how much more perplexing must be the details of a prayer to terrible powers which we cannot see, about which we only guess? With the guidance of the chorus, Electra finally speaks, calling to Hermes, the god of messages, the lord of the dead. When a response occurs, even the knowledgeable chorus becomes afraid.
In the South African novel Heart of Redness by Zakes Mda, a sect of Unbelievers visit a nearby village to borrow a ritual for the recall and purgation of sorrow. Although they are Unbelievers, they feel a deep need to connect with ritual, with a form of activity and its personal and communal effects. In this they differ from the characters of the Oresteia and very possibly from its original Greek audiences. For the ancient Greeks, invocations of the gods would have called forth genuine awe and fear.
Modern society analyzes and deploys the functions of ritual at the moments in life when the Greeks fumbled for appropriate responses to new and terrible situations. But their silences, as well as their placations and imprecations were in good faith. In the Oresteia, the ritual of killing is terrifying because it extends beyond the visible moment-- into generational time, beyond the visible world-- but in Bond's Lear or Kafka's In the Penal Colony, the terror in the ritual of torture is a finite moment of pain within an inevitable process of death, a process whose execution is clinical, whose form itself is worshipped. In one, tragedy is found in the value of life; in the others, terror comes from its devaluation.
"Sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic," said Clarke, and the devices in our pockets do seem like magic. The structures of society enchant us into compliance. But while we may appeal to society for justice, wisdom, food, or healing, while we carefully phrase the rituals of our requests, we hardly fear the mailman like the Greeks feared Hermes. We don't seek to satisfy the gods; we seek the outcomes of the process. We don't try to placate the lord of the dead. We just want our mail.
This functional approach infects Christianity. We can argue and debate about form and ceremony so much that when we find ourselves in unfamiliar situations, we fail to worship. When we talk about music, we talk about the ways in which it works upon people, rather than the ways in which people can worship within its practice. We think of ritual as an external force of control upon a group, as a psychological trip rather than a way to acknowledge uncertainty, express the inexpressible, or reach toward the unimaginable. For even the things we know about God are mysteries and beyond our mastery.
The Christian who fails to feel worshipful and furthermore fails to worship in an Anglican Chapel may find more to condemn in himself than in the vaulted ceilings and fancy robes. Likewise, the person who is filled with awe within that chapel, or who is caught up in the thrill of a worship band must watch carefully, lest true worship be stifled by the overwhelming moment. Dabblers who enjoy the experience of forms of worship must be careful lest they find what they seek.
Doctrine and teaching can also douse worship. But not all dissection is murder. Feynman rightly points out that knowledge of a flower's function can increase one's awe and appreciation of its beauty, just as the functional enumeration of the mechanisms of torture heighten the dramatic apprehension of Lear's ordeal.
The spirit of Agamemnon never appears, never validates the ritual and resolve of Electra and her brother Orestes, but their grief, hatred, belief, and conviction-- which so recently struggled to find expression in ritual-- are expressed in an act of revenge. Even if the form of their ceremony was insufficient or ineffective, their true feelings and belief in the divine are very real. They don't need the ritual; they need their father, they need the gods. Their father never appears, but Orestes still acts on the word of the oracle, in the will of the gods.
For the Christian, revenge is hardly a virtue, but good faith is. My study of classical literature has given me new insight on the nature of faith and form. I have learned that when we ask "how shall I weep for you," the statement's heart is neither "how" nor "weep", but instead "for you". May I find a way to live this truth.